Stopping the Buck in Russia and Elsewhere

I have always been amused by Milo Yiannapoulos, and have regarded him primarily as a funny person, an obvious provocateur.  Every court jester knows that he has to push the envelope to fulfill his duty.  The king must remain flexible enough of mind and heart to laugh rather than get angry.  It is indeed the foolish king that gets angry at his fool.

Milo has always contained contradictions and has never hid his admiration for Catholicism, despite the fact that he was abused by a priest as a young boy. Despite the fact that he lives as openly gay, he has never wanted the Church to change its official position on gay marriage or homosexual behavior in general.  But despite his support of traditional morality, he is gay married.  But, he then goes on to insist that his is not a marriage at all–which can only be between a man and a woman– but rather a civil partnership of some kind.

In a recent interview with Patrick Coffin, Milo showed that he honestly wrestles with some of these contradictions.  He spoke of how he used free speech as a tool against the radical left and the good effect he felt it had.  But he also acknowledged his realization that free speech by itself remains a mere tool and not a destination.  The tools need used in the service of some greater good, and he feels now that this “greater good” is found in the Christian foundations of western civilization.

But he still remains gay married.  We’ll see where this all ends up for him in the coming years.

I have felt for some time that the current debates about free speech and our current political mess are really about our search for a new center, a new place where we can all agree that the buck stops.  The left, which used to ardently defend free speech, now uses exeedingly irresponsible language in regard to curtailing this right on campuses and beyond.*  We all recognize at least subconsciously that free speech cannot stand as our absolute monarch.  No one thinks we can yell “fire” in a crowded theater.  We know that free speech needs some limits and direction. Our problem now is that we have no agreement as to what end we should direct our rights.  And, if we do not know how they should be used, some now think that we should put away these “weapons,” or at least reduce the scope of these rights.

I use the word “monarch” intentionally.  We booted out George III and banned aristocracy.  But of course we have makers of taste, and of course the buck must stop somewhere in any culture.  In some cases it might be with a person, or possibly a place, or in America’s case, most likely in some shared ideas and beliefs.  As Milo has discovered, not even our vitally important right to free speech is an absolute value or a final destination.

Russia has been in the news for some time lately, and we are used once again to the idea of Russia autocracy.  Certainly Russia’s history gives ample evidence that they have less of a problem with authority than most Americans.  But Russia too has at times had crises of authority, and George Fedotov gives us the context and story of one of their most famous confrontations involving the power of the state in volume three of his collected works entitled, St. Fillipp, Metropolitan of Moscow: Encounter with Ivan the Terrible.

Fedotov gives good background to the conflict between the czar and the saint:

  • Czar Ivan III (grandfather to Ivan IV, the Terrible) began to introduce more “foreign” court subservience via his marriage to a Byzantine princess.  One can argue that the expansion of royal courts could hypothetically serve as a buffer to the unlimited power of the king.  Alas, they can also tend to create competitions for the favor of the monarch, with the resul that royal favorites are merely obsequious to the king, and this seemed to happen in Russia.
  • Fedotov gives proper blame to the church under the reigns of Ivan III and Vasilli III (grandfather and father of Ivan IV, respectively) for continually extolling and promoting the wars of the monarchs.  Many church heirarchs made sacrifices of conscience to honor the power of the czar.
  • As a case in point, Fedotov highlights the divorce and remarriage of Vasilli III, who while not an abusive despot, obtained a most uncanonical divorce due to his lack of children with his first wife.  Some church heirarchs supported the divorce on purely political grounds of succession, which set a dangerous precedent of the church finding ways to justify whatever the czar wanted to do, of putting the state before God–or confusing the state with God.

Thus, by the time we reach the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible, b. 1530, d. 1584), the power of czars badly needed curbed, and the church desperately needed a soul and spine to give proper direction to the government and the people of Russia.

Ivan IV likely had some kind of genuine religious faith.  However, his faith focused on apocalytpic visions, and he felt himself beseiged by traitors everywhere.  He saw himself as Russia’s last bastion of hope.  Perhaps Ivan truly suffered from a psychological disorder, but as Metropolitan Fillip knew, Ivan did not need “understood” so much as he needed stopped.  Ivan built on his grandfather’s court policies and elevated certain favorites, even foreign favorites from Germany.  He executed his brutal repression of “traitors” through them, the so called “Oprichina.”  In a time reminiscent of the Reign of Terror in France, thousands had property seized, and thousands of random murders took place on a whim.  Fedotov rightly points out that Ivan inaugerated civil war within his own land, a likely reflection of the torments and divisions in his own mind.  No one who looks at those persecuted by Ivan believes that no more than a few were guilty of anything.  But, the will of the Tsar prevailed without question.

Beneath the tragedy lay the genuine questions: what is the basis for authority in the state?  What is authority for?

Ivan possessed great intelligence and had a keenly developed theory to buttress his use of power.  Like many other monarchs of his day he believed in the divine right and gifting of kings.  He saw his power like that of the emperors of Constantine, and even Augustus, showing that he believed Russia to be the new “Rome” after the collapse of the west and of Byzantium.  Ivan asks, “How can an autocrat rule if he does not do so by himself?”  In the realms of the “godless” a different situation exists, he argued, but in Russia, “autocracy has always been supreme in the realm.”  “Every kingdom is destroyed when it is ruled by priests.  [Priests] destroyed the Greek state and now it is ruled by the Turks.”  In Israel as well, “God did not place a priest or commoners as the ruler or rulers of the people when he led them out of Egypt, but gave power only to Moses, like a Czar.  But when Aaron the priest “temporarily assumed this authority over people he led them away from God,” and the same happened in the days of Eli (see I Samuel) “who took unto himself the sacerdotal and lay power,” leading Israel into disaster.  “Do you see how it is not good for the clergy to rule over that which belongs to the czar?”

Ivan points out further that of course, the czar might sin, but even many of the saints “were among the fallen and the rebellious.”  His sins then, did nothing to limit his power.  Russia may suffer, but through suffering Russia will be purified and brought to greater faith.

In his political writings Ivan talks much about justice and wrath against evildoers, and the need for God to rule unfettered in the state through his chosen man.  The czar should promote the good and punish the wicked. Fedotov skillfully points out, however, that for Ivan the reality of truth rarely receives mention, and that, “The patriarchial relationship of the Tsar to the people as his children, as ‘wards of the state,’ gives way to the severe rule of a master over his slaves.”

We may not want the Church to weild political power, but as Fedotov states, “The Church’s participation in worldly affairs is natural, because the world too is subject to Christ’s truth.”   We have many recorded words from Fillip, some of which I include below:

The crown of piety adorns the Tsar more than any earthly glory.  It is glorious to display one’s power over one’s enemies, and one’s humanity to those who are submissive.  And, in defeating enemies by force of arms, it is glorious to be conquered by one’s own unarmed love.

You have been placed by God to judge the Lord’s people in truth, not to take upon yourself the image of a torturer.  Do not divide the realm.  Unify your people, for God is present only when there exists a spirit of sincere love.  Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.  Do not put your trust in any kind of justice which is not from God.

Ivan told Fillip he had heard enough and warned him on many occasions to be silent.  Fillip responded,

Our silence places a sin on your soul and causes national death.   Our faith will be in vain as will the very Incarnation of God.  If I maintain silence in matters of truth, then I cannot retain episcopal rank.

Fillip’s failure to maintain this silence eventually brought about his death at the hands of Ivan, who felt that he had found yet another “traitor” seeking to undermine his holy will.

One notable aspect of Fillip’s responses to Ivan is that they do not concentrate on legal distinctions, but rather personal commitment to something beyond rights and arrangement of power.  In the west, for better or worse, church and state fought at times over legal rights.  Fillip makes no appeal to the legal rights of the church or his own legal standing as Metropolitan.  He sought not a legal solution but a moral or spiritual one.  The “buck stopped” not with a code of conduct, but in the hearts of men committed to universal truth.

For all of my numerous objections regarding the progressive left’s attack on free speech, I acknowledge that they, along with Milo, see that free speech alone gets us nowhere, and should be in service of some higher truth.  One area where I diverge from the left is that their persistent insistence on dividing people into separate identities of race, sexuality, and gender will defeat their very purpose of finding this universal higher truth and lead us all, like Ivan the Terrible, to find “enemies” everywhere we look.

The postscript to Fillip’s death illustrates this.

In 1590, 21 years after his death, the monastery of which he as formerly the head requested that his body be returned to them.  They wrote to Ivan’s grandson Tsar Fedor, who eagerly gave his permission.  His exhumed body showed no decay, and very shortly after he was reinterred at the monastery, many were healed at his tomb.  The miracles continued, and by the 1650’s, Fillip was now St. Fillip of Moscow.  Czar Alexis (who had the interesting moniker of “the Quiet”) wrote a letter to the monastery, addressing St. Fillip directly,

Even though I am innocent of your vexation, my great-grandfather’s coffin convicts me and leads me to grief.  For this reason I bow my imperial dignity for him who sinned against you, that you forgive him by your coming here.  I submit the honor of my kingdom to your venerable relics.  For the sake of his penitence, and for our forgivenesss, come to us, holy one. You have accomplished the word of the Gospel . . . and there is no controversy about the commandments of God.

The monastery did send the body of St. Fillip, and when he appeared in Moscow Tsar Alexis spoke,

O blessed commandments of Christ!   O blessed truth!  O blessed is he, and thrice blessed, who carried out Christ’s commandments and suffered for them for his own people.  Truly, one can choose no better than to be glad and joyous in truth, to suffer for it, and to reason with God’s people about truth.  . . . God’s judgement does not dwell in falsehood . . . . and we have concern for all Christian souls, and it is our duty to stand strong and pillar like in the faith and in truth, and to suffer unto death unto ages of ages.

The Tsar understood that the repentence needed to be on a national level, for many had profitted from Ivan’s plunders and murders, contributing to the de facto civil war within Russia, and many cooperated with the notorious Oprichina.  But if the repentence involved all, so too the joy.  Tsar Alexis wrote to Prince Odoevskii that,

God has given us a great sovereign, a great sun.  Just as the relics of the radiant John Chrysostom were returned to the ancient emperor Theodosius, so also God has granted us a healer, a new Peter, a second Paul . . . the most splendid and most radiant sun.  We have been granted the return of the relics of the miracle-worker Fillip, Metropolitan of Moscow.  . . . We greeted Fillip at the Naprudnaia settlement, and took the relics upon our heads with great honor.  As we were taking them, a miracle occurred–a raving and dumb woman immediately became well and began to speak.  . . . And when we brought [Fillip] to the square across from the Granovitaia, here again a miracle occurred.  A blind man was healed, and just as in the days of Christ, people cried, “Have mercy upon us son of David!

DM

*I refer primarily to Justice Kagan’s remark about the right seeking to “weaponize” the first amendment.  The Janus case has complexity that deserves a fair hearing on both sides, but I found the phrase itself troubling.  But as a counterpoint, see this argument as to why we should think of righs as weapons (though he makes no comment on the merits of the case itself).

 

 

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11th Grade: Bismarck and “Unnatural States”

Greetings,

This week we began to look at German unification, orchestrated under the brilliant and controversial Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck raises some important and perhaps uncomfortable questions about leadership.  What is the line between serving the interests of your country and serving God?  Should nations be treated akin to how one would treat individuals, and therefore punished and rewarded like individuals?  Or, should nations be thought of as artificial entities that do not have to play by the same rules as people?  Cardinal Richelieu said to this effect: ‘People are immortal and thus subject to the law of God.  Nations are mortal ] and are subject to the law of what works.’ That is, artificial and unnatural creations — one can’t imagine the universe as it is without gravity, but it would be the same universe without the United States.  This hearkens again to Richelieu who would have argued that while Frenchman are Catholic, France is not.  France can’t be Catholic any more than a cardboard box could be Catholic.  Frenchmen may be redeemed, but France will have no heavenly judgment or reward.  For better or worse, Bismarck would have agreed with him.  He also said,

If one wants to retain respect for laws and sausages, don’t watch them being made.

Politics for Bismarck was a dirty business, and there was no point pretending that success would not mean getting his own hands dirty.  But for Bismarck, the world of international politics remained essentially unredeemable, a conclusion Christians may not wish to share.

While there are many debatable aspects of Bismarck, a few things are beyond dispute.  He gained an advantage over some of his foreign political adversaries in part because he recognized what the Industrial Revolution would mean for politics before others.  He realized that

  • Mass production would lead to a ‘mass society,’ where mobilization of opinion could make a huge difference.
  • Old aristocratic Europe was finished, at least in the sense that kings and nobles could no longer act without direct reference to their populations.  The press and public opinion would be nuisances to others.  Bismarck saw them as opportunities for making Prussia’s actions much more potent.

Bismarck is  controversial because

  • He used democracy, but he had no time for it.  Democracy, he felt was for doe-eyed idealists. In the end for Bismarck, ‘blood and iron,’ not speeches, win the day.  Force and strength were the best projections of power, though to be fair to Bismarck, he believed in a limited/surgical use of force.
  • Bismarck was the ultimate realist.  He believed that concerning oneself with justice, for example, could lead one to get carried away, to lose focus.  The primary motivation for policy should be whether or not it serves the interest’s of the state.  Don’t first concern yourself with rewards or punishments.  Do what serves the ends of the state.  A foreign policy built primarily on  morality (an example might be punishing or rewarding a country based on their human rights record) was not proper for a nation, however much individuals should be concerned with it.

As an example of his policy we can look at his actions during the Polish bid for independence from Russia.  When the Poles attempted to break from Russia almost every major power gave speeches expressing their support for the Polish cause.  They did so, no doubt, for a variety of reasons:

  • The Poles vs. Russia was a great underdog story and everyone loves an underdog
  • Independence movements were rife throughout Europe and everyone loves to bandwagon.
  • Polish success would weaken Russia’s power, and most wanted Russia weakened whenever possible.

Bismarck shocked everyone by not supporting the Poles, but even offering public support — and troops — to aid the Russians in crushing the rebellion.  Why did he take such a position?

  • Speeches make you feel good and important, but speeches themselves will not help the Poles one whit.
  • These speeches, however, will serve to alienate Russia, and you would have gained nothing and angered a major power.
  • No foreign power would actually send troops to aid the Polish, so again, the expressions of support mean nothing in reality.
  • The Poles, without foreign aid, would certainly lose.

Thus, it seemed far better to Bismarck to go against the grain and actually aid his country by standing up for Russia in their time of need.  Yes, other countries would get momentarily upset at Prussia’s actions, but again, it would mean nothing.  Bismarck planned to cash in  the favor he performed for Russia later, and he did in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

To put Bismarck’s actions in perspective, think of the “Free Tibet” movement that we occasionally hear about.  Lot’s of people make speeches to end Chinese occupation of Tibet.  But . . . no one will actually do anything about it.  No one would risk war with China over this issue.  The words of sympathy given to Tibet 1) Do nothing for the Tibetans, 2) angers China, which makes them 3) not just worthless, but counterproductive.

To put Bismarck’s actions here in perspective, imagine if a U.S. president not only did not support Tibet, but publicly supported China.  “Yes — go China!  Crush the Tibetans!  Nature wills that they stand subject to your glorious might!”

It would be a bold move.

This does not mean that Bismarck was personally amoral.  Rather, if nations are essentially ‘pieces on a chessboard’ they cannot be sinned against.  You can sin against people.  But you cannot sin against shapes on a map.  This hearkens back to Richilieu’s foreign policy for France some 250 years prior, and to Machiavelli before that. In the same way, no one would call you a ‘sinner’ if you bluffed in poker.  The poker game is in a sense, an alternate reality where different rules apply.  For Bismarck, the same is true of politics.  We see this philosophy come through in his famous musings after Prussia’s victory in the Austro-Prussian War:

We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia. . . .The acquisition of provinces like Austria Silesia and portions of Bohemia could not strengthen the Prussian state; it would not lead to an amalgamation of German Austria with Prussia, and Vienna could not be governed from Berlin as a mere dependency. . . .Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the King of Prussia.

….To all this the king raised no objection, but declared the actual terms as inadequate, without however definitely formulating his own demands. Only so much was clear, that his claims had grown considerably since July 4. He said that the Austria could not be allowed to escape unpunished, and that, justice once satisfied, we could let the misled backsliders off more easily; and he insisted on the cessions of territory from Austria which I have already mentioned.

I replied that we were not there to sit in judgment, but to pursue the German policy. Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the king of Prussia.

Passing on to the German states, the king spoke of various acquisitions by cutting down the territories of all our opponents. I repeated that we were not there to administer retributive justice, but to pursue a policy; that I wished to avoid in the German federation of the future the sight of mutilated territories, whose princes and peoples might very easily (such is human weakness) retain a lively wish to recover their former possessions by means of foreign aid.

If we wish to dismiss his ideas, we should pause first.  After all, it is wrong to kill, but a nation can commission soldiers to kill, and we do not say they sin necessarily by doing so.  People shouldn’t lie, but a nation can spies to disseminate false information.  Is this sin?  If we say no, we have a dilemma on our hands of how we think of states as they relate to ‘individual’ morality.

In the end, Bismarck’s creation of a unified Germany would radically change European politics.  Germany became the greatest land power on the continent immediately.  But the change went deeper than that — the rationale for how a state comprised itself changed.  The idea of a “Germany for Germans” would spread and eventually undo European empires, and sow the seeds of the militant democracies of the early 20th century.

One bittersweet moment for me was the class’s viewing of the last episode of Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series last Friday.  Beginning in 9th grade, I show students at least parts of all the episodes in this series.  Clark has a wonderful eye for discerning the meaning of an age through art, architecture, and music. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, I am always challenged by them.  I believe all episodes are available on YouTube should you be interested yourself.

Clarke’s take on the industrial world is a sobering one.  In the opening lines of the last episode he says as the camera pans on New York City ca. 1968 (I paraphrase),

‘New York City in its present condition took almost as long to build as the Gothic Cathedrals.  This begs a comparison.  While the cathedrals were built for the glory of God, it appears obvious to me that our cities are built to the worship of money.’

AJ Toynbee also discusses the industrial age in his book, ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion.’  For him, the industrial age is simply the outgrowth of western civilization’s “Idolization of the Technician,’ which he believes began in the mid 17th century.  If we acquire the ability to do a thing, that in itself becomes it’s justification.

Clarke and Toynbee’s ideas may not call for agreement, but they do call for a response.  We shall see the effects, good and bad, of the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again,

Dave Mathwin

9th Grade: Matter and Spirit in the Dark Ages

Greetings,

After our Rome unit we transition out of Roman civilization into the medieval world.  This transition will involve rebuilding civilization along a whole new foundation with a different view of reality and consequently, society.  Early next week we will examine the question of the relationship between the physical and spiritual reality, and to what extent (if any) they can be separated.

Can a physical thing be a spiritual thing at the same time?  Or vice-versa?

The modern west tends to view reality in binary form.  We have a spiritual world and a physical world and for the most part the two live separately and do not mingle.  But the medievals would answer the above question affirmatively, and for them the divide between the physical and spiritual had much less rigid separation.

As an entry point into their mindset, we might think of mankind itself.  We are physical and spiritual beings.  Our bodies and souls have a mutual relationship.  We cannot separate them, just as we cannot extract the sugar from the eggs in a cake mix once we mix them together.  We exist as physical and spiritual beings simultaneously.

Medieval people applied this concept to many other areas of theology and life in general.  The elements in the eucharist can be both the body and blood of Christ and bread and wine at the same time.  Certain physical places were holy and important to see on pilgrimages, which were spiritual journeys often undertaken barefoot.  God’s presence hallowed certain physical objects, and God used them in various ways.  The medievals called them relics, and some Biblical examples of this might be Moses’ staff, the cloaks of Elijah and Jesus, and Paul’s handkerchief (Acts 19:12).  The saints don’t reside “out there” so much as they dwell in the here and now as a cloud of witnesses.  The presence of God and the saints link Heaven and Earth and we should (according to early Church doctrine and practice) ask the saints to intercede for us in prayer, just as we ask those on Earth to pray for us.

These theological ideas did not stay purely in the spiritual life of Christians, but impacted the values and shape of society in unique ways.  As we might expect these theological ideas took some time to trickle down into society itself, but eventually we will see their impact when we examine feudalism.

This week we also looked at the chaos in Europe after Rome’s fall.  As the only transnational organized group, the Church inevitably ended up bearing the brunt of the load in bringing about the return of civilization.  At first glance, the proliferation of monasteries has little to do with the recovery of civilization.  But monasteries performed at least 3 crucial functions to aid civilization:

1. Geographical Stability

As this map indicates,

the 5th and 6th centuries saw a great deal of chaos.  Semi-nomadic barbarian tribes wandered and fought as they went.  At bare minimum, civilization needs a defined location upon which to build.  Monasteries provided that, not only be dedicating themselves to prayer, but also to agriculture.  Farmers have to stay put and establish roots to successfully grow crops.

2. Refugees

With barbarians on the move many lost their homes and families.  Monasteries often served as places of refuge to care for, or possibly even educate, thousands of unfortunates.

3. Manuscripts

Many of you, like me, grew up in a time when parents said something akin to, “If we ever have a fire the house, the first and only thing to grab is the photo album.”  As a kid, this never made sense to me.  How about grabbing the tv?  But my parents had the right idea.  Part of our identity means having a connection to the past and those around us.  We don’t just exist as individuals in the ‘now,’ we know who we are based at least in part on our connection to others.

Monks copied many manuscripts such as the Bible and Church fathers, but also other Latin texts from Rome’s past.  We owe a great deal of our ancient Latin literature today to monks from the 6th-10th centuries preserving and copying them.  These books, I think, helped enhance their collective cultural memories.  It helped them connect to a past, reminding them that not all was lost.

The prevalence of monasteries raises the question of what exactly civilizations build upon.  Many critics of the Church accused Christians of “dropping out” by going to monasteries.  This withdrawal showed a heart that did not care.

In his monumental work, The City of God, St. Augustine asks his audience what exactly makes civilization work (among other topics).  It is not, he argues, a good economy, a powerful military, or even a workable political system.  What makes civilization tick is an established pattern of interacting with others both within and without one’s borders.  These interactions get formed from our values, and our values come from what we worship.

Perhaps monasteries can be viewed as a civilizational act of faith, akin to tithing.  They declare that we put our roots in the worship of God, in prayer and in praise, and not in our economy, our military, etc.  Only after recognizing the source of all things can things be properly enjoyed and properly used.  Rome, like nearly every other civilization, mistakenly believed that enough power, enough effort, enough careful application of resources, could hold things together.  They put the cart before the horse.

8th Grade: Cyrus and the Medo-Persian Empire

Greetings,

This week we began our next civilization, Medo-Persia, and began the story of the origin of Cyrus the Great as told by Herodotus.

There are those who dispute the story’s accuracy.   It does resemble in some ways the stories of both Moses and Paris of Troy.  We can trust the Moses story, but we need not immediately discount the Cyrus story merely for that it resembles the story of Moses. The story of Paris seems to reside in myth and folklore, but again, this should not immediately preclude the veracity of the Cyrus story.  These are interesting questions to ponder, and I don’t know if we can find absolute answers.  What it obvious is that it is a great story.  If you ask your children about it, I’m hoping they can retell it to you if you would like.  You can find it in full online in Herodotus’ Histories in Book 1, beginning in chapter 107.

The Persian Empire had its flaws, but did most things right and represented a vast improvement over the Babylonian, and especially the Assyrian empire.  Some of this had to do with historical coincidence, but a lot of it had to do with the values and practices of Cyrus, the empire’s founder.

Some things to note. . .

1. Cyrus arose to power at a time when no other dominant power dominated the ancient Near East.  Egypt had been on the wane for some time, Assyria was destroyed, and the Babylonians had lost their former shine.  Thus, Cyrus was able to expand by slowly incorporating smaller kingdoms into his realm, without a major challenge posed by any other empire.

2. I think the biggest factor, however, was Cyrus’s foreign policy/diplomacy.  According to Herodotus, he set the tone during his usurpation of the Mede King Astyages.  Cyrus was half Mede, half Persian.  Conquering the Medes in the traditional sense would have meant conquering himself.  He spares Astyages and integrates Median and Persian alike.

Cyrus used this same model for most all of his conquests.  He wanted expansion, but he also strove for incorporation and integration.  He tolerated a variety of customs and religions.  You got the benefits of security and participation in Cyrus’s growing network of trade and prosperity.  Very little about your daily life would change. True, the former king would be exiled to a distant palace, but Cyrus tried to promote from within.  He might use local lesser magistrates to rule in his stead.  In class I put it this way: If Cyrus conquered the U.S. he might exile the President and V.P., but perhaps promote the Senate Majority leader and Secretary of State.  He would create loyalty to himself by this, because those promoted would owe their position to him.  The transition of leadership would be softly felt by the locals.

It could be said that Cyrus positioned himself as a ‘liberator,’ and not a conqueror.  He could somewhat truthfully pledge that you would be better off under his dominion.  Slavery came close to disappearing in his realm.  The only thing he asked in exchange was that your army get attached to his and you pledged your loyalty to his person.  He succeeded like few others, and we will not see such effective empire builders until we look at Rome.  One sees something of his personality and humility in his surprisingly simple tomb.

This method of course differed significantly from others that we have seen so far.  One tremendous benefit of this method was that it appears that the Persians had far less slavery than previous civilizations.  As we progress, however, we will see that the splendid machine known as the Medo-Persian empire did have an Achilles heel. What, after all, did it mean to be Persian?  Can an empire’s identity revolve only around economic advantage and efficiency?  The other possible weak link was the army.  This was the one sticking point in an otherwise tolerant (at least for the time) regime.  They mandated and enforced military participation throughout their empire.  This army grew so huge and so multi-national that it might conquer merely by showing up.  But what held the army together?

The history of Persia will in some ways revolve around this question, as we shall see in the weeks to come.

 

Dave

 

Rebels Against the Future

A few years ago at the Circe Institute conference Andrew Kern made a startling statement.  In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites.  I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons.  But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted unknowingly for more fundamental reasons.

All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom.  So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors.  She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth.  They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage.  The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.

So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs.  They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself, though almost certainly not overtly but in a sub-conscious, Jungian sense.

I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch.  But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature.  To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government.  With Jason and his Argonauts we see Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her.  In Homer’s The Odyssey we see a couple of references to the span of life compared to a thread (7.197-198, 24.38-29).  Melville uses similar imagery in chapter 47 of Moby Dickand we also see it in the Upanishads.  Isaiah 38:12 reads, “My life was with me as cloth on a loom, when she that weaves draws near to cut off the thread.”

The philosopher Porphyry uses very similar imagery in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, another reference to the Odyssey (13.102-112).  Here Homer refers to a murky cave which contains, among other things, “looms, likewise of stone, on which the nymphs wear weave sea-purple garments.”  Porphyry writes (and we should remember that he–unfortunately–believed in the pre-existence of the soul),

What symbol could be more appropriate than “looms” for souls descending to birth and the creation of the body?  , . . For flesh is formed in and around the bones, which in living beings resemble stones.

We should not miss the connections to the fundamental facts of weaving, birth, death, blood, and the like.

So perhaps Kern, and the Luddites themselves, were on to something.

I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.  Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else.  He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.”   He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage.  Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason.  In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground.  Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries.  Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines.  And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.*  Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different.  As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts.  Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks?  Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others?  If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country?  The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.

Sale just scratches the surface.  Maybe not much else exists to see.  Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs.  But I think the Luddites continual references to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed.  I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.

My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism.  “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age.  We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.”  The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat.  The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible.  Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians.  Alas, political realities set in and something must give.  The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end.  And this ends up dooming their movement.**

I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.”  They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon.  The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present.  Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change.  They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self.  If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me.  Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.

Or perhaps their concerns went far away from politics.  Perhaps they saw themselves as doomed crusaders, but bound, like crusaders, to something deeper and older than politics.

Maybe.

According to the Tradition of the Church, at the Annunciation the Virgin Mary was found by Gabriel in the Temple . . . weaving a veil for the Temple where she resided, and some icons of the Annunciation (such as the one below from the 14th century in Serbia) show this as well.

In Hebrews 10:20 we see the identification with Christ’s body with the veil of the sanctuary (10:20), and we know that both the Temple curtain and the Body of Christ were broken for the life of the world.  Father Maximos Constas writes, “With the strictest visual economy, then, Mary’s thread gives consummate expression the . . . continuum of conception and crucifixion.”^

From St. Epiphianos:

About Eve and Mary it was said, “Who gave women the wisdom of weaving, and the knowledge of embroidering? (Job 38:36).  For the first wise woman, Eve, wove material garments for Adam, whom she had stripped naked.  This labor was given to her, for it was through her that the knowledge of nakedness was acquired, and thus to her was given the task of clothing the perceptible body.

To Mary, on the other hand, it was granted by God to give birth to the Lamb and the Shepherd [cf. John 1:29, 10:11], so that from his glory we might be clothed in a garment of incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:53-54).

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job 38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility.  For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.

So it may be that the liturgy of the loom points us toward the wisdom of knowing salvation itself.  I’d like to believe that the Luddites thought likewise, and would love for someone to prove or at least suggest this in another book about them.

Dave

*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.

**I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence.  But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker.  This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.

^The entirety of this paragraph owes everything to The Art of Seeing by Father Maximos Constans, pp. 108-109, as do the quotes below, found on p. 129

 

 

9th Grade: Conversions in the City of Man

Greetings,

We began the week looking at St. Augustine’s crucial work, The City of God.  Augustine began writing shortly after the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, and did not finish until many years later.  What he began as a response to Roman attacks on Christianity became, by the end of the work, a full-fledged outline of how History happens.  His work influenced a great deal of medieval thought, though eventually not all agreed with the categories he used to formulate his vision.

Augustine saw history divided into two camps, the City of Man and the City of God.  In Scripture we see Cain & Abel, Ishmael & Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and so on, each representing their respective cities.  The “City of Man” has its place on earth.  The state does not bear the sword for nothing.  But the guiding principles of the city of man are

  • Power
  • Pride of place
  • Competition
  • Justice

Note that justice is part of the City of Man.  This is the legitimate function of the state.  The point Augustine wanted to make, however, is that however legitimate the City of Man may be, it cannot redeem us.  It cannot exercise the fruit of the Spirit.  When pronouncing a sentence, for example, a judge cannot say, “The law says you must serve at least 15 years for your crime, but I forgive you.  You’re a free man!”  And we would not want him to.  Soldiers have the right to kill under certain circumstances, but ending life is not the best way to redeem life.

The Church represents the “City of God” which runs along different principles of love, mercy, etc.  The main goal of the Church is not social order but the redemption of individual souls.  We want the Church to be the place of healing, reconciliation, etc.

Where the rubber meets the road on this is how Church and State should interact.  Should the two meet in some way, ignore each other, or oppose each other?  We will revisit this topic at a later date.

This week we also looked at the reign of Charlemagne, probably the most important figure after Constantine in the history of the West.

In previous weeks we saw how the Church played a crucial role in setting the foundation for the rebuilding of civilization. This week we looked at a few different aspects of Charlemagne’s contribution to this project.

1. Can conversions by force be genuine?

Charlemagne conquered a great deal of territory, and as he conquered he ‘enforced’ the conversion of those he defeated.  To modern minds this seems absurd and counterproductive.  It may have been, but I wanted the students to think about, how in a different time, it may (I stress the word may) have been more effective than we might think.

  • Charlemagne ruled in a time when spiritual beliefs were worn more on one’s sleeve.  Many had the sense that when a tribe fought, so too did it’s god.  Charlemagne may have held a similar view.  In some ways this is admirable, in other ways dangerous (cf. 1 Sam. 4-5).  So, if Charlemagne beat you, you might very well think that your god had lost, and it was literally time for a new one.
  • Modern western democracies do not identify leadership with the nation itself.  We do this in some ways with diplomats,  but in Charlemagne’s time we see a sense that the king ‘was’ the tribe.  If the king converted, the nation would ‘convert’ as well.  A member of a tribe  might do so with the same conviction with which they followed him to battle.   It’s not ideal, but might God work with it?
  • Part of Charlemagne’s motives I think were rooted in part with his sacramental theology.  I don’t think that they believed that baptism would guarantee you Heaven.  But they did believe that baptism conferred God’s grace on the recipient.  With this view, perhaps they thought that if one had a few embers in their hearts inclined toward God, baptism could help fan that into a flame.

How might we tell if these conversions were genuine?  First off, clearly not all them were.  One can see evidence of this in some gravestones with Christian and pagan symbols.  Perhaps they hedged their bets.  But — for the most part Christianity lasted in these conquered lands.  Charlemagne’s conquests on the whole did seem to aid, rather than detract, from the growth of Christianity on the continent.

2. Is force necessary for Civilization?  If you are like me, you wish that it was not so.  And yet, civilization requires security and confidence to flourish.  In the chaotic period of semi-nomadic barbarians that Charlemagne inhabited, war may have been required for order to be established.

Certainly not all forms of civilization are worth the price of every war.  But we must keep in mind that before Charlemagne’s conquests, Europe was hardly a peaceful place.  In every measurable way, the quality of life declined significantly after Rome’s fall.  In the aftermath of Charlemagne’s conquests, civilization does make a comeback with the “Carolingian Renaissance.”  The Carolingian Renaissance cannot hold much of a candle to Periclean Athens or Florence in the 15th century. But then again, they started from a much different place. Writing and scholarship returned to the continent.  They started building with stone, showing a desire for permanence.  With permanence came a stable foundation upon which they could build again.

Last week we discussed the dilemma of whether or not King Arthur existed.  I think we can assume that the Arthur tales, if they had truth in them, may have grown with the telling.  But the stories do not arise from nowhere.  The historian Nennius, for example, writes ca. 800 A.D. that

Then Arthur fought against [the Saxons] in those days with the kings of Briton, but he himself was the leader of battles. . . . The eighth battle was in Fort Gunnion in which Arthur carried the image of St.  Mary, ever virgin, on his shoulders and the pagans were turned to flight through the virtue of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Mary the Virgin, his mother. . . The twelfth battle was on Mt.  Badon, in which 960 men fell in one day from one charge by Arthur, and none overthrew them but Arthur alone.  And in [all 12 battles] he stood forth as victor.

Nennius writes some 300 years after Arthur existed (if he existed), whereas Bede, a more respected historian who wrote earlier than Nennius, says nothing about Arthur at all.  How do we decide what source to trust, and what sources to ignore? When do we grant oral tradition weight as an historical source, and when do we discount it?  I hope the students enjoyed thinking through these questions.

Blessings,

Dave

Gods of the Sideways World

Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down.  Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*

It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.

Different theories exist to explain our predicament.  Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War.  Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.**  Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.

We can give all these theories their due.  But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental.  Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.

One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan PageauThe Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery.  The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover.  The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources.  This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it.  While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world.  Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.

The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.

Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense.  But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary.  And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^

And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.

This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.

There is a difference.  The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.

The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:

Creation

  • We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos.  The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
  • Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally.  Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
  • Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation.  God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
  • The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.

Plant Life

  • Plants grow from seeds.  The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
  • Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.

Man

  • The upright nature of man is also no coincidence.  It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se.  Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is).  But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic.  Our appetites need structure.  Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.”  The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
  • Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation.  As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.

Language

  • Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth.  We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect.  We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters.  We then further organize them into words, and so on.
  • Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc.  We make ideas manifest through language.

Christ Himself

One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself.  He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary.  After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed).  His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.

Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.

The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained.  I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy.  Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century

which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see

which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further.  Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.

The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion.  Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there.  With chaos comes death.  For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction.  Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general.  The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement.  Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue.  But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself.  Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.

Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return.  Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance.  We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse.  New gods would rule over us.

I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it.  Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.

Dave

 

*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit.  Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.

**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.

^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds.  Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe.  But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.

^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter.  But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father.  Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.

^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it.  But I do wonder at its logic.  If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?”  Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status?  That would make them like everyone else.  Those in power tend to guard it jealously.